By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was arguably the strangest school-year kickoff Dallas had ever seen.Forget all those bright-eyed, backpack-toting first graders bouncing onto their buses--that time-honored, Rockwellian image so dutifully trotted out by thousands of school districts nationwide was not quite what DISD superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez had in mind for the momentous launching of her first full school year.
What she had in mind was what she'd seen--and rather liked--several weeks earlier in an editorial page cartoon in The Dallas Morning News. In the cartoon, Gonzalez was pictured behind the wheel of a giant, snorting bulldozer, eagerly knocking down all questionable staff expenses. (The cartoon was a send-up of a much-ballyhooed internal investigation Gonzalez had launched into suspiciously high overtime payments to employees.)
Clearly enthralled with that take-charge, tough-girl image of herself, Gonzalez decided to bring her caricature to life. So on the morning of August 12, the day before the district's pupils returned to school, Gonzalez summoned her 18,000 employees to work. She then dispatched a fleet of charter buses to pick everyone up at their schools and offices and haul them to Reunion Arena. When everyone had taken their seats inside the cavernous hall, Gonzalez appeared before them, replete in her fantasy role--roaring onto the arena floor behind the wheel of a bulldozer.
It was sheer spectacle. In the shadow of a spray of flares that lit up the darkened arena floor, the tough-talking 44-year-old Hispanic educator gripped the wheel tightly, peered over her wire-rimmed glasses, and let it roll. Although she appeared nervous at one point about the chances of navigating the bulky machine through the arena's rear portal, any such trepidation was ultimately outweighed by an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction.
Climbing down from the big yellow machine, a dazzling smile on her face, Gonzalez teasingly asked her audience: "Is this a little different than the convocations that you remember?"
Gonzalez and her full-time staff publicity hound, Robert Hinkle, had advertised the event as an unprecedented district-wide pep rally for teachers and administrators. Never before--the two Dallas Independent School District administrators boasted--had all of the teachers been brought together under one roof.
As for the bulldozer, Gonzalez and Hinkle had explained, that stunt was a visual metaphor showing how Gonzalez was dedicated to overcoming any obstacles thrown in her path to get the focus at DISD back on the students. (No similarly philosophical explanation was provided for the other highlight of the Reunion extravaganza--namely, the floor show put on by some of the district's black administrators, who danced and lip-synched the words to the song "Soul Man" while it blasted over the arena's sound system.)
Initially, the superintendent's big gimmick served its purpose. That evening, each local television station dutifully showed Gonzalez rumbling across the arena on her big yellow machine. The next morning, the Morning News positioned Gonzalez and her bulldozer on the front page of the paper--a lengthy story accompanied by a full-color photo.
When reporters raised the obvious questions about the costs of such an affair, Gonzalez and Hinkle downplayed their concerns. Rally expenses would run about $60,000, Hinkle briefed reporters, but the district would be getting private financial contributions as well as revenues from some booth rentals at the event to help pay for that. Anticipating just such questions from her bosses, Gonzalez had dispatched a memo to board members regarding such costs shortly before the event. "Work is underway with corporate sponsors to underwrite a portion of the expense," she wrote to trustees, "and I am hopeful this will defuse any concern on the part of the public."
Gonzalez got her wish--sure enough, the public hasn't shown much concern. And why should it? As represented by Hinkle, the event's price tag was relatively small. Add to that Gonzalez's comforting assurances of generous private assistance, and what the taxpayers reckon they got was a perfectly executed, perfectly adorable back-to-school bash hosted by the female John Wayne of urban superintendents.
On the other hand, the public doesn't know much either. As it turns out, the afterglow of this publicity coup was short-lived inside the halls of the DISD administration building on Ross Avenue. Within days of the pep rally, school board trustees, business community leaders, and district administrators were beginning to compare notes about troubling inconsistencies in the versions of events Gonzalez and Hinkle had spun for the media.
What corporate campaign? What generous sponsors? And where in the world did an anemic figure like $60,000 come from? The people who sat at Gonzalez's knee counting the taxpayers' money knew better: forgetting for a moment the cost of chartered buses and countless security officers and a big-city arena rental, teacher pay alone for that one day cost almost one million dollars, according to one DISD financial administrator who is still rolling his eyes over his boss' cost projections.
To make matters worse, there apparently are no corporate angels--or if there are, the typically loquacious superintendent isn't saying.
Although board members are supposed to approve all charitable gifts of more than $25,000, they have seen no corporate contributions for this event to date. And when the Dallas Observer asked the superintendent for proof of any smaller gifts, none was forthcoming. When pressed, Hinkle insists that tens of thousands of dollars have rolled in--yet the only contribution he can actually document is a Dallas construction company check for $330, which covered the bulldozer rental.